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Interview with Belly dancer Fahtiem

by Salome

The Middle Eastern dance community has recognized and honored Fahtiem as dancer, instructor, choreographer and producer with a plethora of awards and induction to the Middle Eastern Dance Hall of fame.

She has performed throughout the United States and starred in "Belly Dancer's Paradise", "Arabian Dance Fever" and in the videos "Festival on the Nile XII and XIV" to name but a few. Her talents earned her crossover to mainstream media on shows like Good Morning America, Solid Gold, The X Show, Talk Soup and Arabic MTV.

Fahtiem produces and directs the annual belly dance convention and stage production "Oasis Dance Magic", is an active entertainment coordinator and director for the dance troupe "Sultan's Delites."

Ibrahim Farrah said of her, "Fahtiem brings a touch of class to Oriental Dance, as well as a delightful sauciness, making her not only a grand entertainer, but an artist as well." Here, here.


Salome: Can you tell us about when and how you were introduced to Oriental Dance and why you choose it to be your life's work?

Fahtiem: First of all, I did not choose Oriental Dance to be my life's work. Oriental Dance chose me. It seems like there was no thinking or planning of how Oriental Dance would be part of my life. It was as if avenues opened up and I just followed the path.

As a small child, I always loved to dance but never had any formal training. When I was a young adult and lived in Illinois, I saw an ad in the Illinois paper. It was advertising that a new Belly Dance class was forming. I'd never seen a belly dancer and didn't know what it was about but it sounded intriguing and after having my son who was around two years old at that time, I thought it would be a fun way to exercise and get back into shape.

The instructor was a lady who taught jazz and tap to small children. Her neighbor was Arabic and had introduced her to Middle Eastern music and showed her some of the movements and steps from her country. I went to my first session. There were approximately fifteen women. None of us knew what to expect. It was an eight week course.

The music and the movement was something that I connected with right away! The second week of the course was spent learning choreography with the goal of performing at the end of that session for friends and family. We were the sixteen week wonders of our time. We made our own costumes which is a whole story on its own. But I definitely did know that I loved the music, the dancing and the performing. It has been my passion ever since.

Salome: What was the dance scene like when you started out and how has it changed, in dance communities and the mainstream, through your career?

Fahtiem: Shortly after I took my classes in Illinois, I moved to California. I lived in Whittier where they had just started a class for Belly Dancing at the local YMCA. Little by little, it came to my attention how popular this dance was in the LA area.

It was a time when the networking system wasn't as highly developed as it is now. There might've been a few periodicals but I didn't find out about them until later on. Around that same time frame, there were issues that were popping out in the local dance clubs. There were dancers that were trying to undercut the house dancers. That's when MECDA was founded. The founding members were picketing at the downtown clubs. All this was covered by the newspapers and it was on T.V. But there were still dancers who were breaking the picket line while the regular dancers were striking.

Nowadays, the club problem still exists. The competition for jobs in clubs is still there. That hasn't changed. There might be a larger cohesive group of dancers that work together and do abide by the appropriate ethics and obviously the ability to find information of what ethics are appropriate have been defined today. But there are still dancers that don't have any regard or are just not aware of the appropriate protocol.

The mainstream's opinion and understanding of this dance and art form has vastly changed from when I first began. A lot of the misconceptions have been cleared up. The questions when asked: "What to expect in a performance...?" are not there anymore. Mainstream now has a better understanding of what we are all about and are more accepting. Every day gets better and better and more and more people are educated and informed about what we do and who we are.

Salome: I understand you choreographed for the Miss America Preliminary Pageant and for the play Othello. How did you translate the dance for 'foreigners' and to two very different contexts?

Fahtiem: When asked to do choreography, there are many things that need to be considered. Let's start with the play Othello. The choreography had to be geared towards a period when and where there were only certain types of instruments to play music. The music they supplied me to choreograph to was not standard Arabic music. The costuming that they had planned also needed to be considered as well as their purpose of who they were on stage for the play. All these things were considered in doing the choreography as well as the skill level of the performers.

It was challenging and exciting to do some research about the time period the play "Othello" was representing. I had two actresses with minimal understanding of body movement as it pertains to Middle Eastern dance. They were excited and willing to work on it and we were successful in coming up with something that had the right feel and movements that read well on these novice performers. The end result was interesting and it worked!

The Miss America Pageant had similar dynamics and yet completely different ones. All the girls started out with a lot of presence which is normally hard to teach in a short period of time. The audience would be an American audience. In the beginning, I was asked to choreograph for 15 girls. I found some music that was dynamic and would be easy for American audience to relate to. I also had to design their costuming and was made aware that there were certain guidelines such as making sure their "belly button" didn't show.

I met with them twice a week. The first time I met, there were 15 girls. The third time I met, there were 14 girls. The fourth time I met there were 10 girls. By the time it was done, there were 9. It was really a frustrating experience considering that each time someone removed themselves from the contest. I had to change the choreography and staging and since I had used color as part of my choreography, some of the girls were placed according to the colors of their costume and needed to be switched around. Fortunately, there were a few dancers that had more experience and were able to handle the changes. The end result was great! It read on stage with power and pizzazz! There's a lot to be said about the value of stage presence.

Salome: Among the many instructional services you offer one is motivational coaching. What is your approach and process in this and why do you think it isn't more prevalent in Oriental dance?

Fahtiem: Being a motivational coach, came naturally after my own personal journey in personal growth. In 1983, I started my first course and have been involved ever since by increasing my information gathering the tools that I need to create my own personal life and to keep myself motivated and passionate about what I do.

My excitement in seeing my own results have led me to share what I know with my students. I'm very thankful for the ability I have acquired. Having the tools to evaluate what someone could benefit from, is most exciting. It's wonderful knowing that I could assist the student in understanding a little bit more about why they might be stuck and how to get through it and go to the next level.

I think it's really important to be supportive and understand that we are all excited about succeeding. It is a wonderful feeling to see one of my students succeed and to know that I assisted in any way. I would love to see them all be "Stars". That is my motivation: to motivate them! I don't know what all other oriental dance instructors think or how they view the business aspect of this dance. Sometimes there might be a few that get caught up in the business mindset and feel pressure to do their business in a protective way.

Salome: What are your thoughts on creating a universal dance vocabulary, and certification system? And what body of people do you think should guide that process?

Fahtiem: Creating a universal dance vocabulary would've been so much easier many, many years ago. At this point, there are so many dancers around the world, thousands; it would be a very large undertaking and a challenge to get everyone to agree on what to call certain movements. It's been a discussion at conferences, on the internet and by many dancers who all agree that it would be a very challenging task to undertake.

There are many dancers that have taken it upon themselves to name the movements. Some are shared by all and others are names they've made up. I'm not really sure how this can be resolved. I don't think we've gotten any closer in all the years I've been involved.

As far as the certification system, I know that some dancers could definitely benefit from going through a program and that it might even make them work harder to achieve a certificate. As far as who should guide the process, maybe the best way (if it should ever happen) is that a vote be taken by all the dancers in the community to choose who should be on the certificate committee. The more I think about it, it seems that if the dance community in Europe were to choose, the choices would be different than the choices made here in United States.

The question would still remain: "Is the certification done by region or should there be a universal one?" The process would be a huge undertaking and everyone would need to agree and I find it hard to believe that everyone would agree on any one thing. There needs to be a lot more thought put into it. Also what would this certificate do and if you did have a certificate, who would accept it and for what reason? It's like the chicken and the egg question. So much time has passed that there are a lot of chickens and a lot of eggs that have been laid. I guess I better go now. All this talk is making me hungry!